The Ultimate Guide to DAW Software for 2014

best daw softwareSince way back in the 90’s…

When home recording first started…

And the earliest versions of the modern DAW began emerging…

People have always argued about which one is best.

And today especially, with SO many options now available…

The debate rages on.

For beginners starting out, that makes for a tough decision, doesn’t it?

So to help folks with this all-too-common problem, I’ve assembled this in-depth post entitled:

The Ultimate Guide to DAW Software for 2014.

First up…

Buying and Installing a DAW

As anyone who’s done it before will tell you…

The mere process of buying and installing a DAW can be challenging.  So I’ll start by explaining how it works.

When buying, you have 3 options:

  1. The DIGITAL version – which you download off the company website.  Most prefer this method because they can get started right away.
  2. The BOXED version – which is shipped to your house.  Others prefer this method, because they like having a physical copy.
  3. The INCLUDED version – which comes free with the purchase of certain audio interfaces (such as Avid and Presonus interfaces).  Personally I prefer this method because you save money by combining two purchases into one.

Next comes the toughest part: the INSTALLATION.  Because in order to unlock the software…

Most DAW’s require that you to download your licenses to a USB dongle, which must then remain plugged into your computer whenever you record.

It sucks, I know, but doesn’t mean your DAW sucks.  That’s just how they are.

The first time I did it, the entire process took me two days!  So be patient.  You only have to do it once.

Free vs Paid DAW’s

Audacity Software

Yes, it’s true…free DAW’s do exist.

And no matter how many people say they’re a waste of time…

It’s a lesson most people must learn for themselves.

Of all the options, I recommend Audacity, the most popular free DAW on the planet.

Now at this point, you have two choices:

  1. Waste 2 weeks playing with Audacity, only to decide you need something better. 
  2. Or skip that part, and get something better now. 

If you choose option 1, I’ll see you back here in 2 weeks.

If you choose option 2, let’s move on…

Limited vs. Full Versions

Rather than using a free crappy DAW…

The MUCH smarter plan is to buy the “limited” version of a premium DAW instead.

Companies offer these versions specifically to accommodate smaller home studios budgets.

While they only cost a fraction of the “full” versions, they still include 95% of the same features.

And since the restricted features are only ever used by advanced engineers, you won’t even miss them.  If you need them later in the future, you can upgrade the full version at a discounted price.

That’s the PLAN I recommend.  Now here are the DAW’s I recommend…

Comparing the Top 9 DAW’s of 2014

If you polled 1000 studios, and asked them which DAW’s they prefer…

You’ll hear a wide range of opinions…

But you’ll notice…that among dozens of options, there are NINE standouts…

That almost everyone knows, uses, and trusts.

And since each one has been used on countless hit recordings, they’re ALL capable of professional results.

Let’s look at each of them now, starting with…

1. Presonus Studio One

Presonus Studio One ProfessionalLong known in the audio industry for making quality hardware at affordable prices

Presonus recently decided to add their own DAW line as well.

So with the help of several formal developers from Steinberg Cubase

Presonus released the first version of Studio One back in 2009.

Since then, it has quickly risen to become a serious competitor of other top DAW’s.

Click below to see prices/reviews for each version.

Bedroom producers find this DAW particularly appealing, because Studio One Artist, is included free any of the following interfaces:

Up next…

2. Cakewalk SONAR

Cakewalk Sonar X3 ProducerWhile it’s probably my least favorite option on the list…

Cakewalk Sonar has ranked among the top DAW’s for years now…

And is definitely worthy of mention.

But here’s why I don’t care for it:

These days, virtually every top DAW is cross-compatible on both Windows and Mac

Yet for some reason, Sonar a Windows only program.

PC lovers might not care, yet no one can argue that a HUGE percentage of musicians are Mac users.

And if you EVER plan to collaborate with any of them…Sonar is probably NOT your best option.

Having said that, here are 2 things I like about Sonar:

  1. The X3 and Studio versions are insanely affordable.
  2. Sonar does uses serial numbers to unlock their software, rather than the complicated USB dongles required by most DAW’s.

Click below to see prices/reviews for each version.

Next let’s check out 3 of the top options for electronic music.

Starting with…

3. FL Studio

Fruity Loops DAW Software

Most of us know it as Fruity Loops

But with their latest release…

Image-Line has officially changed the name of their classic software to FL Studio.

A top choice for electronic musicians and DJ’s, it’s primarily used for creating loop and sample-based music.

One of the coolest things about FL Studio is…

It’s the only DAW on the list offering FREE lifetime updates.

Purchase either the Producer or Signature bundle and you’ll never have to give them money…ever again.  Awesome, huh?

Click below to see prices/reviews for each version.

NOTE: the Fruity Edition does not have audio recording…So avoid it unless you ONLY produce electronic music.

They also offer a cool mobile version known as FL Studio Mobile.

Up next…

4. Propellerhead Reason

Propellerhead Reason 7 DAW Software

Much more than just your average DAW…

Propellerhead Reason offers one HUGE feature that the others don’t.

In addition to being a solid stand-alone DAW

It also functions as a suite of virtual instruments than can be used combination with other DAW’s.

With Reason, electronic musicians can easily collaborate with producers working on virtually any platform.

For those who prefer the look and feel of REAL analog gear…

Its visual interface mimics the design of an actual studio rack, even allowing rear access for cable patching.

If you like virtual instruments, Reason is definitely worth a closer look.

Click below to see prices/reviews.

Up next…

5. Ableton Live

Ableton Live Suite DAW Software

What makes Ableton Live so unique…

Is the fact that it was originally designed as an instrument for live performances.

And while it has since evolved into a complete recording package…

Awesome live performing is still one of its primary goals.

This fact is clearly demonstrated, first, with a visual interface that fits entirely on a single laptop screen.

And second, by the MANY 3rd party hardware controllers designed specifically for the software.

The most popular ones include:

If a live performance tool is what you need, Ableton Live is what I recommend.

Click below to see prices/reviews for each version.

Up next…

6. MOTU Digital Performer

MOTU Digital Performer DAW software

One of the oldest DAW’s in existence…

The first version of Digital Performer appeared way back in 1990…

Originally as the front-end of a Digidesign system that would later become Pro Tools.

Earlier “MIDI only” versions of the software existed as far back as 1984.

Throughout that time, Digital Performer was known famously as the “Mac only” option.

Which is big deal, since back then, and even more so today, the large majority of audio professionals love Apple.

Still, for that reason, the probably missed out on a lot of potential users.  But no more…

Because with their latest release, they’ve finally made themselves cross-compatible with Windows as well.

I suppose it’s about damn time, huh? :)

Click below to see prices/reviews for each version.

Moving on…

7. Steinberg Cubase

Steinberg Cubase DAW Software

The OTHER “old-timer” on this list…

The original version of Cubase was released by Steinberg back in 1989, which at the time, was MIDI only.

Not longer afterward in 1992, they released TWO major advancements to the software…

Adding BOTH support for audio, and Windows compatibility.

From that point forward, they continued to refine the technology, contributing several major advancements to the music industry along the way.

Their greatest claim to fame was their introduction of VST plugins in 1996, and VST instruments in 1999, both of which became industry standards for many years after.

And even today, Cubase has managed to somehow remain just as revelant as they have been for the past several decades.

Click below to see prices/reviews for each version.

Next up…

8. Apple Logic Pro X

Logic Pro X DAW Software

Back in 2002, a small company known as Emagic built the first version of Logic…

Which must have looked promising to Apple…

Because they bought it soon afterward.

And it turned out to be a great investment, because since then Logic has grown to become one of the top DAW’s in the world.

No surprise, it is the only DAW on this list NOT compatible with Windows.

And while PC users might complain, Mac users can rejoice.  And here’s why:

By keeping it a “Mac only” platform, Logic users are assured that virtually any audio interface compatible with Mac OSX will work with Logic as well.

And since these days Macs or so damn popular with musicians…

Audio interface makers know that OSX compatibility is a MUST.

Ultimately this means a TON of interface options for the end users.  And that’s us.  :)

For the latest version of Logic Pro X, you need to visit the App Store and purchase the digital download.

Up last on the list, the king of all DAW’s…

9. Avid Pro Tools

Avid Pro Tools 11 DAW SoftwareIn this day and age, Pro Tools has practically become a household name.

Because for many years now…

It has been the industry standard in music recording.

Everyone uses it…in pro studios, and home studios alike.

And that alone, is a strong argument why you might want to use it as well.

Currently, there are 3 versions of Pro Tools available:

  • Pro Tools Express – the beginner version, which is NOT sold on its own, and only available as a bundle with Avid Fast Track Solo, Fast Track Duo, and Mbox interfaces.
  • Pro Tools 11 – the intermediate version, which comes included with the Mbox Pro, and is also sold separately for use with other 3rd-party interfaces.
  • Pro Tools HD 11 – the professional version, comes included as part of an HD Core System, but can also be bought separately.

Now despite it’s popularity (or perhaps because of it), many folks DESPISE Pro Tools.  And a common reason is the pricing structure.

While beginner versions of their DAW’s/interfaces are highly affordable…

A Pro Tools HD set up will cost you 10 grand or more.  And in between…there aren’t many options.   The complaints come when studio owners realize they need more channels of I/O but don’t want to pay for an HD set up.

Did Avid do this intentionally to coerce people into buying their high end products?  Who knows?

The bottom line is, despite all its haters…

Pro Tools would never be as popular as it is, if it wasn’t a damn good product, that’s easily worth its price tag.

What’s Next?

Now that we’ve gone through the list, hopefully you’ve found one that you like.  Assuming you have, the next step is finding a suitable audio interface to accompany it.

If you’ve chosen either Presonus Studio One Artist, or Pro Tools Express, the choice is easy, because the software is included free with the following interfaces:

Pro Tools Express comes with:

Presonus Studio One Artist comes with:

With any other DAW, you need to purchase an interface separately.

If you need some help, check out this article:

audio interfaces